By Melinda Munson

This year, Skagway highschool students took over a task once assigned to Public Works and built raised garden beds for older and disabled community members, an outreach of the Higher Ground Program.

“It became a neat way to apply things we’ve been working on,” said Aaron Schmidt who serves as Skagway School vocational education teacher when he’s not teaching English, social studies or physical education.

The students had to design plans for the garden beds. This was accomplished by measuring and sketching existing beds placed near the road. A Carl Perkins state grant allowed for a friend of Schmidt, Rason Jens, a master woodworker from Oregon, to visit Skagway and help build the first prototype.

From there, the apprentice woodworkers measured, cut and joined their pieces to make five additional garden beds.

Schmidt gave an overview of the project. “Measuring. Always, always measuring,” he said. He described the enterprise as a “sweet spot of tolerance.” “Perfection is not needed,” he said. “We nevertheless strive for it.”

Higher Ground began in 2017, after a proposal by Kim Burnham. A municipal program with a budget of $5,000 for this year, it is administered on behalf of the municipality by the Skagway Organic Gardening Society (SOGS). To date, thirty-two Skagway residents have participated in the program with 23 garden beds distributed. The beds come with soil and are available to residents 55 and older or those who struggle to garden due to physical impairment. The beds remain the property of the municipality. (See here for application.)

Jeremy Burnham works on a Higher Ground garden bed in the Skagway School vocational education shop. Photo by Steve Burnham.

Eight applicants were on the waitlist, leaving just two remaining after the six Skagway School manufactured garden beds are delivered. 

“We hope to be able to issue beds to all of them this season,” said Kim Burnham of SOGS.

The program has come full circle from its inception when local carpenter Howard Smith  designed and constructed the first three garden beds. 

“The idea to have woodshop students build the beds for the program was in the original program proposal, and was attempted at an earlier date, but there were logistical issues that prevented that plan from coming to fruition until this year,” Kim Burnham said. “The efforts of woodshop teacher Aaron Schmidt and Public Works Director Tyson Ames finally helped accomplish that goal.”

Shop student Jeremy Burnham walked away with an important lesson, one that some adults have yet to master.

“I learned that if you follow the instructions on something it makes it easier to do,” he said.

The highschoolers were not present when Betsy Albecker, the first recipient of a student-made garden bed, was gifted her future kale keeper. 

Schmidt described the building process as “an opportunity to use our skills for service, to help the lives of people we probably don’t even know. There’s not really a celebratory payoff. There’s no applause. I like that,” he said.